In Mike Figgis’ enthralling Time Code, the screen is divided into quadrants, and we watch different strands of a single story play out simultaneously on the four rectangular mini-screens. Yet simply to say that is to make the film sound gimmicky and ”experimental” and a chore to sit through, as if it were geared to some chilly race of future oddballs, like David Bowie in ”The Man Who Fell to Earth,” scrutinizing a dozen TV shows at the same moment. ”Time Code” might better be described as a voyeur’s delight. It gives you the dizzy sensation that you’re seeing an erotically heightened soap opera of everyday life as taken in by the omniscient eye of a multi-channeled surveillance camera.
The entire movie was shot, in 93 minutes, on a single afternoon in November 1999, with four digital video cameras tracking the various actors around Los Angeles without so much as a single edit. Figgis might have been inspired by live television drama, only he ups the logistical ante. In ”Time Code,” we’re watching four ”locations” at once, and four sets of characters, and it’s an intoxicating pleasure to see the elaborate ways they all come together.
In the upper left-hand quarter of the screen, an ambitious actress (Salma Hayek) and her jealous power-player lover (Jeanne Tripplehorn) quarrel over a suspected affair. In the image next door, a soft-spoken British beauty (Saffron Burrows) murmurs to her shrink about a failed relationship. Below her, the executives at a New Line-like film studio, led by its distracted founder (Stellan Skarsgård), chew over their latest project, for which the harried director (Richard Edson) is auditioning actresses. Meanwhile, a security guard (Danny Huston) cokes up in the bathroom with one of the actresses (Leslie Mann), who runs into Hayek’s character, who gets an impromptu audition, even as she’s sleeping with the studio head, who’s using her as he tries to reconcile with the melancholy therapy patient…
”Time Code” could be the first melodrama that you literally channel surf to watch. It’s like an Altman movie that viewers are invited to assemble in their own heads — ”Short Cuts” without the cuts. Figgis cues you where to look by turning up the sound in one quadrant or another, yet your eye is free to wander. Nailing down the precise nature of the relationships is part of the film’s hypnotic trickery — and also, as we learn who’s sleeping with whom, its comedy. If the narrative gambit has an upshot, it’s that a man sitting in an office speaking — or crying — inarticulately into a telephone can be as galvanizing as any car crash.
Written and performed with wonderful lifelike delicacy (the actors improvised around a set structure), ”Time Code” may be a stunt, a cubist version of the macabre romanticism Figgis explored in ”Leaving Las Vegas” and ”One Night Stand.” But if so, it’s a singular and inspiring one. Could this, at long last, be the ”video future”? Hardly. That’s being reinvented with every new video-shot release. ”Time Code,” however, stands as a rare feat of technology made human.